Wednesday, March 12, 2014
SOUTHAMPTON — Like a lot of his friends, Anthony Lucchesi started riding bicycle motocross, better known as BMX bikes, when he was a little kid.
The bicycles are longer, lighter and shorter than regular bicycles, and are a favorite among adventurous souls who like to do tricks off dirt jumps in their backyards.
But when he was 12, Anthony tried out the sport of BMX racing on a dirt track at a local fairground. Within a year, he was traveling the country and winning state and regional races. At 14, he was ranked as the 20th best racer in his age group in the U.S.
Now, at 15, he has set his sights on qualifying for an elite Olympic BMX training camp at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. Racers only have two years in their mid-teens when they can qualify.
“I have a two-year window to make it into the top eight to get to go,” he said. He did not qualify last year, though he was close.
With only one year left to make his dream happen, the Lucchesi family is doing everything it can to get him to the camp. They travel almost every weekend to national races and out-of-state indoor training facilities. Although he has some sponsorships, his parents, Thomas and Andrea Lucchesi, foot the bill for most of the expenses.
For each race national race, his mother, Andrea Lucchesi said, he usually misses school from Thursday through Monday. As he started attending more races, he was missing so many school days that Hampshire Regional High School was going to have to hold him back a year, even though his grades were fine. That prompted the family to enroll Anthony instead in the Greenfield Virtual Academy, which offers online classes.
His mother said the sacrifices and changes are all worth it to give Anthony the best shot at achieving his goal. “It’s his last year to make the Olympic training camp and I’m not going to look back and regret this,” she said.
“He is one of those kids you don’t see too often that just has the raw natural ability and talent for extreme sports,” said Thomas Bacis, owner of Custom Cycle Bike Shop in Easthampton. The shop sponsors, and Bacis coaches, the Kryptonite Race Team that Anthony is a part of.
In addition to being a skilled rider, Bacis said the teen is “a truly great kid.”
“Anthony is always polite and has respect for everyone around him,” he said. “A lot of kids look up to him on and off the BMX track.”
At the family’s home at 360 College Highway, the driveway is lined with what looks like snowbanks. But underneath the humps of snow are carefully-crafted dirt BMX jumps protected by plastic tarps.
Most of the year, Anthony and his brother Thomas, 10, use the jumps constantly. Anthony even shoveled the snow off and continued to use them in the winter until the snowfall in the last few weeks buried them too deep.
In an interview at his home, Anthony recalled his first race in June 2011 at the Westfield Fairgrounds. His brother’s baseball coach had suggested Anthony try the sport since his own children enjoyed it.
“I was a little nervous, but I was used to doing jumps and stuff,” he said of the race. He took second place and was hooked, he said. Since then, Anthony and his mother estimated, he has competed in between 200 and 300 races around the state and throughout the country.
The serpentine dirt tracks at BMX races feature lots of jumps, but there are no points for tricks. “It’s just about who finishes first,” he said. When going off jumps, he said, “you’re just trying to keep balanced and upright and going in the right direction. You don’t want to be nose-heavy or tail-heavy.”
Sometimes, that’s easier said than done, and riders crash. They have helmets and other protective gear, Andrea Lucchesi said, but she can’t help her nerves. “It’s good that most BMX races last less than a minute, because I can hold my breath the whole time,” she said.
At the races, there are several different heats, called motos, with up to eight riders in each. Each racer has two chances to race and finish in the top two in a moto to move on to the next level, including quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals.
When Anthony started racing at 12 in the “12 novice” class, he and his family went to local races around the state. By the end of his first year, he was the fourth-ranked novice for his age in Massachusetts and made the move to the “13 expert” class.
In 2012 and 2013, he won his class at several larger regional events, including the New England Nationals, the Quaker State Nationals, and the East Coast Nationals.
He competed in 95 races in 2013 at tracks in Nevada, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and up and down the East Coast. Of those, he won 32, or about one-third, Andrea Lucchesi said.
Also last year, he was the top ranked racer for his age group in the district, which means for the state of Massachusetts. But he lost the title when he moved up to the 20th national ranking. When you are good enough to be nationally ranked, he explained, you become ineligible for the district ranking.
The national ranking is based on his scores at his top six national races and at the USA BMX Grand National, which takes place in Oklahoma every year. “It’s like the Super Bowl of BMX,” Andrea Lucchesi explained. The family drove 24 hours to the giant race for the first time last November, and Anthony made it to the top 16 in his class of 68 riders.
Now, at the beginning of his “15 expert” racing season, he is focusing on making it to the BMX Olympic training camp. To qualify, he has two years to compete in so-called national “Junior Devo” races and get enough points to rank in the top eight. Last year he ended the season ranked 14th, although he was in eighth place at one point, he said.
To make it this year, Anthony is trying to keep training year-round, something his peers in the Southern states can do much more easily than he can.
In the winter, he rides his bike indoors on rollers, which make it like a stationary bike, and makes trips when he can to the closest indoor BMX facility 3½ hours away in Endicott, N.Y. He also trains with BMX trainer Josh Wedge when weather permits. When they can’t find a place to ride, they review videos of his races to see what he can do to improve.
Working to be a top racer — he hopes to eventually turn professional — requires a lot of time and money, but Andrea Lucchesi said the whole family is enjoying the ride.
The costs of racing are somewhat mitigated by his sponsors, Custom Cycle Bike Shop, Sara Lee breads and rolls and Ball Park buns and rolls. He came by the latter two through his mother’s job as a systems specialist for Bimbo Bakeries.
But the Lucchesi family shells out for most of it, including $280 per national race for him to register. Sometimes, his younger brother also races, but Andrea Lucchesi said his priority is playing basketball. Their father owns Lucchesi Billiards in West Springfield and Ivory Billiards Lounge in Holyoke.
One of the best things about Anthony’s racing is the community that the whole family has found through it, Andrea Lucchesi said. “The families that we’ve met have been incredible. We have friends all over the country now,” she said.
“People really help each other out” in that community, Anthony said. He recalled at a recent race in Kentucky when a rider’s bike broke right before his race was about to start, and a rider in the following heat just lent the stranger his bike. “And he didn’t even know him,” he said.
While Anthony said his peers at Hampshire Regional did not really “get” his racing hobby, he now has friends at every race who love the sport as much as he does.
“The BMX community is, for the most part, fun,” he said.
Rebecca Everett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.